Clearly, I think very highly of defensive backs. This article and this publication would not exist if I didn’t. And like anyone with any sense who appreciates DBs, I think very highly of Charles Woodson, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy winner who is retiring at the end of this season, his 18th as a professional.
But in response to a question that has been going around since Woodson announced his impending retirement on Dec. 21, I do not think Woodson is the greatest defensive player in NFL history. And that is primarily because he is a defensive back.
In order to own the title of the Best Defensive Player Ever, I believe you should be able to dominate a game. And while I think DBs are often the best athletes on the field, and while I think DBs often have the most difficult job on the field, the nature of the position does not allow one defensive back to dominate a game. A pass-rushing defensive end or outside linebacker can do that. An inside ‘backer whose range extends sideline to sideline can do that. Even a defensive tackle or nose guard who routinely blows up the line of scrimmage and/or summons the attention of the entire offensive line can do that.
Defensive backs can’t really do that.
Yes, we say Deion Sanders could take away half of the field in his Prime. Active superstar cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman can probably shut out the best wide receiver in the league for a whole game. Sean Taylor could take away a team’s deep passing game from his free safety spot. And at strong safety, Troy Polamalu could perhaps take away the intermediate passing game, prevent running backs from long gains, and even be a pass-rushing menace from time to time.
But one DB cannot do it all. Deion couldn’t cover that other half of the field. Sherman can lock up one receiver, but quarterbacks can throw to many others. Taylor could take away the deep ball, but not that and the short passing game. Polamalu could theoretically be “all over the place,” but not realistically.
It’s simple: Defensive backs start off too far away from the action to really dictate it like other defenders. It’s called the defensive backfield, the secondary, and the last line of defense all for a reason. Too many things can and do happen before a DB usually gets involved.
To make an analogy across sports, it’s the same reason for which I’ll lean toward naming a guard or perimeter player the best defensive player in basketball instead of a center. For as great as Dikembe Mutombo or Dwight Howard may be at blocking shots and protecting the rim, they are the ones who clean up messes. A defensively excellent guard or wing like Gary Payton or Kawhi Leonard can stop an offense before it really gets going; they can prevent things from becoming a mess in the first place.
In football, an elite defensive back can dominate their island — as Revis has done so well that he’s turned into a trademark — but not the entire field or an entire offense like players at other positions.
And so while Woodson’s NFL swan song plays — he will enter his final game this Sunday when his Oakland Raiders visit the Kansas City Chiefs — and the public attempts to put him in his proper historical place, I’m comfortable saying that Woodson is not the best defensive player of all time, and that it’s also not any kind of knock on him to keep him off that particular pedestal.
Best defensive player ever? I wouldn’t go that far.
Best defensive back ever? Now that’s something I can get behind.
Just like Woodson’s versatility made him the first and (so far) only defensive player to win a Heisman Trophy — he also played receiver and returned kicks for Michigan as a junior in 1997 — his versatility is his strongest asset in a best-DB-ever debate.
Sanders was a legendary cornerback. Polamalu was a legendary safety. Woodson’s legendary status comes from his brilliance at both positions. His closest historical comparison is probably Ronnie Lott, who made four Pro Bowl teams as a corner early in his career and six Pro Bowls as a safety later on.
According to Pro Football Reference, Woodson played 11 seasons at cornerback and four at safety. He made eight Pro Bowls as a corner and was voted to the Pro Bowl as a safety for the first time this season. And that wasn’t a questionable farewell/sympathy selection, either. Woodson has been great in 2015, collecting five interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 67 tackles while helping a young Oakland secondary set a solid foundation for the future.
Woodson’s versatility also shows in the fact that he is the only player in NFL history to rack up at least 50 interceptions and 20 sacks.
Going into his final game (not counting the Pro Bowl), Woodson has 65 interceptions, 20 sacks, 33 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries, 13 defensive touchdowns and 977 tackles in 253 regular-season games. Lott retired with 63 interceptions, 8.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries, five defensive touchdowns and 1,113 tackles in 192 regular-season games.
In 17 postseason games, Woodson had one interception, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He won a Super Bowl championship with the Green Bay Packers following the 2010 season. In 20 postseason games, Lott had nine interceptions and two fumble recoveries with two defensive touchdowns. He won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers between 1982 and 1990.
In my opinion, Charles Woodson belongs in the top-six club of NFL defensive backs, alongside Deion Sanders, Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed, Rod Woodson and Darrelle Revis.
Defensive backs may not be able to dominate a game. But Woodson is one of the few who have come as close as possible.